Unmanned aerial system (UAS) technology has the potential to revolutionize a broad cross-section of industries, ranging from media and telecommunications to agriculture and construction. In the future, a forward-leaning regulatory framework will allow businesses of all sizes to leverage this technology to maximize revenue, create efficiencies, and expand the scope of goods and services available to consumers, not to mention deliver hundreds of billions of dollars to the economy. The Small UAV Coalition was founded on the principle that ‘technology always wins,’ and that philosophy is more apropos now than ever before. However, federal regulators determine when businesses, consumers, and our economy can begin to benefit.
In June 2016, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) took an important step toward achieving this reality. After a nine-month delay, the FAA released its long-awaited Final Rule for commercial UAS operations (Part 107). The rule, effective 29 August, 2016, expanded opportunities for commercial drone operators and businesses to test and integrate a wider range of commercial UAS applications. While beneficial to industry, Part 107 was merely a small first step. Operators must travel to a designated FAA testing facility to take an Aeronautical Knowledge Test in order to obtain a remote pilot certificate and entities interested in integrating extended operations – including those beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), at night, over people, and with multiple UAS – are subject to a lengthy and arduous waiver process.
In the six months since Part 107 went into effect, the FAA has granted just over 300 of these waivers, the vast majority of which only allow for highly restricted nighttime operations. These lingering limitations on expanded operations stifle innovation and truncate the vast economic and social benefits possible through widespread integration of UAS technology.
Many companies that utilize UAS technology saw a glimpse of the future when the FAA announced plans to release a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for operations over people by the end of 2016. This NPRM would open a public comment period that would allow industry, consumers, and government stakeholders to provide input in support of a forward-leaning final rule that embraces innovation, safety and security. With no sign of progress at year’s end, FAA Administrator Michael Huerta publicly acknowledged an indefinite postponement of the NPRM on 6 January.
The promise of a NPRM took another hit in early 2017 when the new US Administration implemented a regulatory freeze and announced intentions to require two regulations to be repealed for every new one that goes into effect in an effort to reduce regulatory burdens on businesses. Let’s celebrate the reduction of redundant or burdensome regulations while recognizing that some regulation provides clarity to industry and actually promotes investment, innovation, and job creation through removing government prohibitions. Huerta’s “steadfast commitment to… ensur[ing] drones can fly over people without sacrificing safety or security” remains a hollow promise to companies eager to integrate operations over people, but stalled by the delay. Even initiatives that face no uncertainty or interagency “miscommunication,” such as digital education tools, consumer information centers/representatives, and an automated and expedited waiver process are in some nebulous queue.
While there are undoubtedly sectors of the economy in dire need of reduced regulatory burdens and less red tape, many rapidly developing sectors of the 21st century economy are at a standstill amidst legal and regulatory uncertainty. Commercial UAS technology is evolving at a pace that has exceeded nascent regulations. The industry needs a forward-leaning, progressive regulatory framework to in order to realize the vast economic and social benefits of this transformative technology.
Security issues must never be taken lightly and safety is always paramount, but we can, at the very least, initiate this critical dialogue and have transparency about reasons why we are not. A NPRM would provide an opportunity for industry stakeholders to sit down at the proverbial table and consider all questions and concerns – safety, security, or otherwise – alongside key lawmakers and regulators. Countries around the world continue to adopt progressive UAS regulations and authorize expanded operations, outpacing US progress and our government’s commitment to American innovation. Aggressive pursuit of US leadership in the research, development, production and application of UAS technology is more important than ever – time is of the essence because, as we all know, technology always wins.
Editor’s note: A new ISACA white paper on drone usage and a related checklist can be downloaded at www.isaca.org/drones.